In President Hu Jintao’s fourth year in power, his administration effectively silenced some of the best journalists in China by sidelining independent-minded editors, jailing online critics, and moving to restrict coverage of breaking news. The government drew international criticism for its actions against foreign news agencies and their employees–including convictions of Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, and Ching Cheong, a correspondent for the Singapore-based Straits Times–along with new rules appointing the official Xinhua News Agency as sole distributor of foreign news services in the country.
The year saw some of the country’s most steadfastly progressive working journalists demoted or fired, continuing a trend of dismantling prior advancements in the commercial press. Journalists were not universally cowed, however. In January, when the Central Propaganda Department shut down the thoughtful news supplement Bing Dian (Freezing Point), attached to the national newspaper China Youth Daily, Editor Li Datong openly lodged a complaint with the Communist Party’s internal affairs watchdog. Bing Dian reopened but was forced to run an apology for an essay criticizing textbooks’ nationalist treatment of 19th-century events. And editors Li and Lu Yuegang were removed from their posts and demoted to the News Research Institute, a separate department of the China Youth Daily.
“It’s a place for children and the elderly,” Li told CPJ in describing his new position.
Li became a vocal critic of government control over the media. “I wanted to be a role model to the media for challenging the Central Propaganda Department, to show people that it’s OK to do this,” he explained in a March meeting with CPJ in Beijing. “I think there will be more and more [challenges], and they will force the government to start reforming the media. The way the system operates now is unconstitutional and a total abuse of power.”
Outside of major media centers in Guangzhou and Beijing, journalists were subject not only to the policies of the central government, but also to the whim of local authorities, who sometimes responded to embarrassing news stories with brutal vengeance. In February, Taizhou Ribao editor Wu Xianghu died from injuries sustained months earlier when traffic police stormed his newspaper’s office in the eastern coastal city of Taizhou and severely beat him in retribution for a report alleging corruption. It was the first known killing of a journalist in China since 2001, though physical attacks on journalists have been on the rise, according to CPJ research. Local media were ordered not to mention his death, and no criminal charges were reported.
Other journalists were imprisoned after offending local officials. Yang Xiaoqing, a reporter for China Industrial Economy News in central China’s Sichuan province, was jailed in January after spending months in hiding. He was accused of blackmail and extortion and sentenced to a year in jail after reporting on alleged corruption by officials in his home county of Longhui. Through the online advocacy of his wife Gong Jie and Internet journalist Li Xinde, the case gained the attention of Chinese citizens, who believed Yang was unfairly targeted. He was released after serving seven months in prison. In the southern province of Fujian, Fuzhou Ribao Deputy News Editor Li Changqing was not as lucky. Jailed after writing about a whistleblower’s denouncement of corruption among local Communist Party officials, he was sentenced in January to three years in prison on charges of “spreading false and alarmist information” for reporting a dengue fever outbreak on the U.S.-based online news service Boxun News.
Just as local public pressure appeared to play a part in the early release of the Longhui reporter Yang, international criticism had an apparent–though limited–effect in the case of New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, jailed since 2004. Acquittals are extremely unusual in Chinese criminal cases, but Zhao was exonerated on a charge of leaking state secrets through his work for the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. He was not freed, however; the Beijing court sentenced him to three years in jail on a separate fraud charge, which his supporters believed was a pretext for continuing to hold him. Denied an open trial because of state secrets concerns, which were later discredited, Zhao was also denied an open appeal hearing on the fraud conviction.
Likewise, Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong was denied an open appeal hearing after he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to five years in prison. Ching, a resident of Hong Kong and a veteran reporter, was jailed in 2005 while trying to obtain sensitive transcripts of interviews with ousted former leader Zhao Ziyang; he was charged with using his journalistic contacts to gather information for an academic organization in Taiwan that China said was a front for the Taiwanese intelligence agency. The Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the verdict, saying it seriously jeopardized press freedom. Ching’s jailing was seen as a shot across the bow for Hong Kong journalists reporting in China. His appeal was rejected in November.
A CPJ reporting mission to China in March focused on the government’s efforts to suppress news coverage of tens of thousands of protests around the country, many of them related to the confiscation of farmers’ land for development without adequate compensation. Concerned that reports of local protests would lead to instability at the national level, the government undertook one of the worst crackdowns on the media since the aftermath of demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, journalists told CPJ. Reporting on sensitive issues such as protests has been taken up by activists who use the Internet to spread news, commentary, and calls for action, CPJ’s Kristin Jones found in a special report, “China’s Hidden Unrest.”
A lawyer known for his defense of activists was himself arrested and charged with “inciting subversion.” Months before his arrest, Gao Zhisheng organized a hunger strike in protest of the official harassment of people like Guo Feixiong (Yang Maodong), a writer and activist who has drawn attention to the plight of farmers seeking redress from local officials. Several online writers were arrested in a crackdown apparently instigated by the hunger strike, including blogger and documentary filmmaker Wu Hao. Wu, who was working on a documentary about underground Christian churches, was detained after meeting with Gao and held without charge for more than four months, drawing protests from bloggers and friends around the world.
Writers Guo Qizhen and Zhang Jianhong were arrested for their online political commentary. Guo was sentenced to four years in prison for his criticism of Communist Party rule and widespread poverty and corruption. Zhang was imprisoned and accused of “inciting subversion” two days after posting an essay criticizing China’s human rights record in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. They joined the list of 31 journalists imprisoned in China, including pro-democracy writer Yang Tongyan (known by his pen name Yang Tianshui), who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in May on subversion charges.
The imprisonment of Zhang–who linked China’s human rights failures to the Games and called it “Olympicgate”–was ironic given Beijing’s promise in its 2001 Olympic bid that “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.” But in the countdown to the Games, official policy has not followed official promises; instead, Beijing has tightened controls on the press. In November, a CPJ delegation met with Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli and Communications Director Giselle Davies at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, to raise alarm about the erosion of press freedom in China.
In particular, CPJ expressed concern that Chinese journalists and sources would be at risk of official retribution once the Games ended if they reported anything deemed unfavorable. The IOC leaders did not address the safety of Chinese journalists or trenchant government control of the press, but they pointed out steps taken to ease restrictions on movements and access for foreign journalists during the Games. In December, the government lifted requirements that foreign journalists obtain official approval for travel and interviews. The change, effective through mid-October 2008, extends to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan reporters, but it does not apply to mainland citizens.
China’s tightening grip was evidenced in July, when central authorities made an effort to bolster their control over the media with a proposal to fine news agencies for reporting “sudden events” without official authorization. News organizations could be fined up to the equivalent of US$12,500 for their reporting, part of a regulation that seemed intended to forestall coverage of riots, natural disasters, and other unforeseen incidents before propaganda authorities could issue orders on how the events should be reported. An official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the regulations would apply to international news agencies as well as the domestic media. The proposal provoked open derision among working Chinese journalists, and it was unclear how the regulation would be implemented.
At the international level, much more attention was paid to a surprise announcement by the official Xinhua News Agency in September that all foreign news would be distributed solely through a Xinhua agent with authority to censor content. The regulations departed from conditions in effect since 1997 that allowed financial news agencies such as Reuters, Dow Jones, and Bloomberg to provide economic news and information directly to Chinese banks and media outlets. Concerned news agencies met with Xinhua and took a strong stand against their implementation, sources involved in negotiations said. Japanese, European Union, and U.S. officials were also quick to express concern about the measures, which appeared to violate norms set forth by the World Trade Organization. At year’s end, the new rules had not gone into effect, and it appeared China might back away from them.
The stance of the international news services, one supported by foreign officials, was in contrast to the position of technology companies–many of them American–that China’s strict rules restricting expression are nonnegotiable and that companies have no choice but to obey. Members of the U.S. Congress in March berated Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Cisco Systems over their complicity in Chinese government efforts to restrict free expression and to jail Internet users for criticizing the government. A particular target of criticism was Google’s launch of a self-censoring search engine, Google.cn, in January. (The new version proved unpopular in China.) The companies’ policies did more than just restrict searches or censor information. Journalist Shi Tao remained in a high-security prison, serving a 10-year term imposed in 2005 for “leaking state secrets” on his Yahoo e-mail account; evidence brought against him included account-holder information provided by the U.S. company.
In the fall, CPJ took part in discussions with U.S. and international Internet and communications companies, investor groups, human rights organizations, and leading U.S. academics to develop business principles that would safeguard free expression and privacy worldwide. The participants worked to establish voluntary guidelines for companies that would be modeled after the Sullivan Principles, which were adopted by U.S. businesses in response to apartheid. Discussions were expected to continue in 2007.
Liu Zhengrong, deputy director of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office, told reporters in February that China blocks just a “tiny fraction” of Web sites available worldwide, and defended the country’s massive and sophisticated firewall as being in line with international norms. He denied that any journalist was imprisoned for expressing views online. In October, Yang Xiaokun, a diplomat from the Chinese mission to the United Nations in Geneva, went further and denied that any Web sites were blocked in China. “We don’t have restrictions at all,” he said in response to a question posed at a conference in Athens on Internet governance. “How can I elaborate on it if we don’t have any restrictions?”
Such assertions disregarded the facts.
At least 19 journalists were jailed in China in 2006 for online news and commentary, according CPJ research. In court documents, Chinese prosecutors themselves repeatedly cited online articles as evidence of “inciting subversion.” In March, authorities publicly defended the shutdown of a popular literary and news Web site known as Aegean Sea, one in a long line of Web sites censored by the government.